“Compassionate”, “big-hearted”, “inspirational” are just some of the words used by colleagues to describe Dave Hill following his sudden death in June aged 61.
Hill had been executive director for children at Surrey County Council since April 2018, after spending eight years leading children’s services at Essex Council. Prior to that, he’d been director of children’s services (DCS) in Croydon and Merton councils.
As Essex DCS, he oversaw the transformation of the department, taking looked-after children services from an “inadequate” Ofsted rating to an overall “good” by 2014.
His success in Essex was built on his passion for relationship-based social work practice. Instrumental in that was the opening of the Essex Social Care Academy in 2012, which the council has credited for cutting agency staff use and social worker caseloads. Hill, who set up a similar academy in Croydon, said the approach helped disseminate shared values about ways of working with families and boost recruitment and retention of staff.
The initiative won a CYP Now Award in 2016 when Hill said that as well as being the right thing to do, it was a pragmatic investment.
“The cost of running the academy is probably the same as the cost of six or seven children in care placements,” he told CYP Now. “We have reduced the number of children in care because practice is better. It would be easy to attack the training and development budget, but then find that you have six or seven more kids in care, with that saving immediately lost.”
His success got him noticed by the Department for Education. Shortly after Essex received its good rating, the DfE appointed Hill as the independent commissioner for inadequate-rated Norfolk and Birmingham children’s services departments. Meanwhile, Essex acted as an improvement partner for Slough and Somerset councils.
The experience cemented Hill’s belief that the sector – and not Ofsted – was the best vehicle for improvement. In a Guardian interview in 2016, he said: “I would favour Ofsted having a black and white response to inspection: reached minimum grade, tick, or failed minimum grade, cross… and then the sector should be defining what is good practice.
“I am not talking about chasing a set of indicators, but more about how to establish practice models.”
Collaboration was one of the key themes during Hill’s year as president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) in 2015/16. It coincided with then Prime Minister David Cameron ramping up the rhetoric on intervening in “failing” services.
“The year ahead will be marked by a sea change in how we help each other get better,” he told CYP Now. “This isn’t about some authorities that have done really well, telling all the others how to do it. It’s more about giving and reciprocating.”
Hill has been proved right – in recent years, the Partners in Practice improvement programme has been established and the ADCS has set up regional improvement alliances, while the number of struggling authorities has steadily fallen.
In Surrey, which received an Ofsted inadequate rating in early 2018, Hill had stabilised children’s services and begun to lay the foundations for future success. The threat of children’s services being handed to an independent trust to run was removed earlier this year after a government-appointed commissioner concluded the department had “come a long way in a short time”.
In her tribute, Surrey Council chief executive, Joanna Killian, said Hill had been responsible for this “rapid and wholescale improvement”.
“His passion for doing the right thing by children and just getting things done shone through and he was the architect of the most brilliant transformation I have ever seen,” she added. “He worked so hard and I know his inspirational leadership, sheer energy and drive put us in the position we are today, with a service we can be proud of.”
Sarah Caton, ADCS chief officer, described him as a “compassionate man who was deeply committed to improving the lived experiences and outcomes of all young people, particularly children in care”.
“Dave’s presidential year was unique,” Caton said. “It will always be remembered for its focus on ‘love’, based on the simple premise that all children deserve to be and to feel loved by those who care for and work with them.”